Americans Support “Right To Be Forgotten,” Software Advice’s Survey Finds

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Since The European Court of Justice ruled  that citizens of the European Union have a “right to be be forgotten” Google and other search engine operators have been doing their best to undermine the court’s decision.  Instead — if they would actually listen to their users — they would be figuring out how to implement the right in the United States as well.

In May the court decided  that a person has the right to request the removal of search engine links from their name to information that is inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant, or excessive. The removal isn’t automatic if requested.  There needs to be a balance between the individual’s privacy and the public’s right to know in making a decision to remove a link.

Some observers have argued that with the the U.S. commitment to freedom of expression the right to be forgotten would never fly in this country.  Judging from a survey conducted in early September  by IT security evaluations company, Software Advice, Inc., that’s flat-out wrong.

“Given the First Amendment and the traditionally strong emphasis on the public’s right to know in American culture, it may be difficult to imagine such a ruling happening stateside,” wrote Daniel Humphries, market research associate. “But American culture is also traditionally strong on protecting privacy—and in fact, in January 2015, variant legislation applicable only to minors will become law in California. What if U.S. citizens start demanding the right to be forgotten, too?”

Intrigued by the question, Software Advice decided to conduct a poll and surveyed 500 adults to find out how they felt.  Key poll results according to Humphries:

— Sixty-one percent of Americans believe some version of the right to be forgotten is necessary.

— Thirty-nine percent want a European-style blanket right to be forgotten, without restrictions.

— Forty-seven percent were concerned that "irrelevant" search results can harm a person’s reputation.

Twenty-one percent opposed implementing the right because it would be too difficult to to define relevancy, while 18 percent were opposed on the basis of the public’s right to know.

In addition to the 39 percent who thought there should be an EU-style law, 21 percent wanted the right with qualifications.  Fifteen percent said it should apply only to minors and 6 percent said it should apply to everyone except public figures.

Meanwhile, the European Commission’s Department of Justice has published a “Mythbuster” about the Right to be forgotten.  

“This landmark ruling has sparked a lively and timely debate on the rights and wrongs of the so-called right to be forgotten. It is important to make sure the discussion is based on facts,” the Justice Department writes. “A sober reading of the judgment shows that the concerns that have emerged in this debate are exaggerated or simply unfounded.”

The Department challenges what it calls these myths:

— Myth 1: “The judgment does nothing for citizens”
— Myth 2: “The judgment entails the deletion of content”
— Myth 3: “The judgment contradicts freedom of expression”
— Myth 4: “The judgment allows for censorship”
— Myth 5: “The judgment will change the way the internet works”
—Myth 6: “The judgment renders the data protection reform redundant”        

The Digital Age ended “privacy by obscurity” — that is people forgetting things over time and thereby giving us some protections from our no longer relevant youthful indiscretions.  The right to be forgotten simply restores to the Digital Age the balance in Europe that is provided with privacy by obscurity.  The right simply allows a European to identify links from their name that are no longer relevant and ask for their removal.  It won’t always happen and when it doesn’t there will be an appeal process.

 Americans deserve the same right. Google, which claims to care about privacy,  should be ashamed that it is not treating people on both sides of the Atlantic the same way.


John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson is an American consumer rights advocate and former journalist. Since 2005, he has worked for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group, as the lead researcher on Inside Google, the group's effort to educate the public about Google's dominance over the internet and the need for greater online privacy.

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